Speak Truth to Power

Honesty is simple, but it is not always easy.  Among the hardest things a change leader or project manager has to do, are those conversations that relay uncomfortable truths.

It is not just because we don’t like the discomfort of it all, or because we cherish our popularity; there is a real risk that, if it goes badly, the conversation can derail the whole project or initiative.

Hijacked Agenda

Giving people bad or uncomfortable or unwanted news can flip their focus from the rational to the irrational, and their response can become unpredictable.  The one message can become the whole deal for them.  And if they have sufficient power, they can hijack a whole agenda.

No wonder, therefore, that we would often prefer simply to send an email.  It’s quick, it’s detached and we can think it through and write it as we want to: no chance of mis-speaking.  Of course, we all know that is the wrong approach: if only we acted on that knowledge!

Some History

I first became aware of the phrase “speak truth to power” in that cauldron of political learning, The West Wing.  The origins of the phrase go back to an injunction to Quakers and has been re-used frequently by political writers since the mid 20th Century.

But the concept is, of course, far older: in ancient Greece, the concept of saying everything, being bold and speaking without fear was called parrhesia.

The Challenge

The real challenge is how to do this effectively.  Even if you discount the personal risk of losing face, being shouted at or getting the sack, speaking fearlessly can change everything.  So it is necessary to ensure that the change, if it comes, is controlled.

Fearless speaking is not about being brave enough to dive in.  The courage you need is to face up to the complexity of your message and make the time to prepare.  This unfortunately means living with the stress for a little longer.  In planning, you have two objectives:

1.  Communicate you message

2.  Control the emotional states of you and the other person

The common mistake is to treat the first of these as most or all of the challenge.

First Steps

The key to controlling your emotions is preparation plus a few extra tips (which I’ll save for a future blog post).  Controlling the other person’s emotions is far harder.  If they refuse to cede control to you, there is nothing you can do.  Five things that will help:

  1. Give them time to work things out for themselves and make time to listen to them
  2. Keep facts simple and express things as clearly as you can
  3. Give them a back door – when they get the message and need to save face, have some extra information to offer.  That way, they can blame you for not knowing that one fact, rather than take responsibility for holding out
  4. Be prepared to declare that the situation has broken down
  5. Reiterate your commitment to them and to what you are doing

The “so what?”

Speaking truth to power is no fun, but it most often goes wrong when you focus on the truth, rather than the power.


2 thoughts on “Speak Truth to Power

  1. Samad Aidane


    This is a very important topic. I think this is one of the most critical skills that PM needs to develop to be able to lead projects.

    Telling the truth to power is one of the most important conversations the project manager needs to have. It is also an example the conversations that don’t take place often on projects.

    In my view, projects are a series of conversations. With each conversation, we are either building, destroying, or (in the words of Susan Scott author of “Fierce Conversations”) flatlining relationships with our project stakeholders, one conversation at a time. The success or failure of the project depends not only on the quality of the conversations that are taking place but also on the conversations that should be taking place but are not.

    When projects fail, usually it is not because the project manager did not know what to do. It is because they knew what to do, but for a whole host of reasons (justifications), they hesitated to have that difficult conversation. Having these difficult conversations sometimes matters more than anything else going on in the project.

    I think that most project managers intellectually understand the need to tell truth to power. We mentally grasp the concept that good/responsible project managers should tell truth to power. Many of us even know how to do it.

    But when the time comes to have that conversation, we hesitate and look the other way.

    The reason we hesitate is because risk-taking requires that we deal with fear. As Chris Majer, author of “The power to transform”, said fear lives in the body and the first thing we need to do is develop the capacity to cope with this fear. The only way to do this is with practice.

    We have to put ourselves in projects and situation where we can practice our truth-telling muscles. At the start of our careers as project managers, we initially should do this in low risk environments so we can develop the habit of telling the truth to power in a safe setting. Over time we will learn to face and overcome our fear. Only thru practice can we develop the capacity to silence the inner voice that warns us of all the horrible things that would happen if we tell truth to power. Chris Mayer said, the mind understands but it is the body that learns.

    On the flip side and on the same topic, I wrote a while ago a post on when it makes sense to be economical with the truth that I hope you find interesting. Here is the link:



    Samad Aidane

  2. Pingback: The Apprentice 11: The Final Five | mikeclayton.co.uk

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